A Compass Without a Map: Digital Reading and A.S. Byatt’s Possession

Byatt’s novel is a massive testament to literary study, filled to the brim with fascinating literary figures. It’s all the more impressive that Byatt has largely created them out of thin air. There are many characters and motivations within Byatt’s novel; throughout the novel each tries to ‘possess’ knowledge, usually in the form of Randolph Henry Ash’s letters to Christabel LaMotte. With Possession as my primary text, I will argue that Byatt’s novel ultimately resists digital forms of reading. With digital media, there are thousands of intellectual papers, literary rarities, virtually anything I can think of available at the press of a button. This goes against all of the characters in Possession. They want to possess the literary history themselves, privately and individually, all in the same way, for different reasons.
I will first explore the advantages and disadvantages to digital reading, and research, and how it can help and hinder the reader. I will do this using my experience reading Stephen Ramsay’s Reading Machines as an eBook, using both Ramsay’s text and Eco & Carriere’s This is not the end of the Book; as well, I will further discuss the subject using David M. Berry’s book Understanding the Digital Humanities. I will continue to reference these works throughout the essay; however, I will explore them at the beginning to illuminate how I’ll approach Possession and what Byatt’s novel says about how Possession should be approached.
I will then discuss the patterns and readings of Possession through digital media, non-digital reading and the subjectivity of the novel using my own insight and Mark M. Hennely Jr.’s “Repeating Patterns” and Textual Pleasures: Reading (In) A. S. Byatt’s “Possession: A Romance”
Additionally, I will explore the idea of Byatt’s of textual research of literature as a romantic process, through Robert B. Heilman’s “A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” Observed.” Which will ultimately illuminate the dangers of a future where digital reading is the norm, and why elements of Byatt’s novel resist such a future.
Digital libraries are useful in that they tell you everything about the text, and link to all relevant areas. There’s not much intellect or history to possess but rather to read, and acknowledge. But how will new knowledge be discovered? Ultimately the entire point of Byatt’s novel is right in the beginning; Roland find the letters that set off the events in the entire novel because they happened to be in an old Ash text. This is akin to finding a useful book on the shelf beside the book that brought you to that section of the library. Yes, there are “beside this book” options that are available, especially at the U of C‘s Library website, but Byatt seems to argue that the history of literature is literally and figuratively within it’s pages. Without physical documents to prove facts, love and events, there’s no proof, and no knowledge to possess. Like Ramsay suggests in his book, algorithmic reading, and digital reading are extremely useful tools, but Byatt’s novel suggests that if we rely only on tools, our possession of the knowledge itself is lost to endless Google searches and stored .pdfs.


Carrière, Jean-Claude, Umberto Eco, and Jean-Philippe De. Tonnac. This Is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation. London: Harvill Secker, 2011. Print.
I will use Carriere and Eco’s thoughts to illustrate the lasting strength of printed literature and it’s relation to digital media and algorithmic tools.

Berry, David M. Understanding Digital Humanities. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.
Berry’s text will help to link the two in class texts together, and illuminate the advantages of digital humanities.

Ramsay, Stephen. Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2011. Print.
I will use Ramsay’s text to highlight the importance and usefulness of algorithmic readings in contrast and comparison to Carriere and Eco’s text.

Robert B. Heilman’s “A. S. Byatt’s “Possession” Observed.” The Sewanee Review 103.4 (1995): 605-12. JSTOR. Web. 22 Mar. 2013. .
I will use Heilman’s text to highlight the romantic aspects of Byatt’s text, and the idea of literary studies as something romantic, which will link to the importance of non-digital reading.

Hennely. Mark. M, Jr. “Repeating Patterns” and Textual Pleasures: Reading (In) A. S. Byatt’s “Possession: A Romance” Contemporary Literature. 44.3. (2003). 442-471. JSTOR. Web. 20. Mar. 2013.
I will use Hennely’s text to elucidate the recognition of patterns in reading Byatt’s text in relation to the subject at hand.

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One Response to A Compass Without a Map: Digital Reading and A.S. Byatt’s Possession

  1. ullyot says:

    This is a great start, Grant — and a reminder (like your presentation today) that for Byatt, physical artifacts are essential: hence the lost message in the Postscript. But you may be implying that digital surrogates for those archives are somehow threatening the artifacts, which I’m not sure they are; they’re overlaid on them, making them accessible.

    Martin Mueller has some useful things to say about surrogates here: http://bit.ly/ZmYE1u

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